The King of Clubs was a famous Whig conversation club, founded in 1798. In contrast to its mainly Tory forerunner The Club (established by Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds), it was a predominantly Whig fraternity of some of the most brilliant minds of the day. For an early description of the club see W.P. Courtney’s description in ‘Lord Byron and his Times.’ (Lord Byron and His Times)
The Rev. Sydney Smith’s older brother, Robert – nicknamed “Bobus” – provided the original inspiration for the club. Bobus gained a reputation at Eton for being such a clever Latin “versifier.” The group of friends who served as the founding members first met at the house of James Mackintosh in February, 1798. Along with Mackintosh, Samuel Rogers, James Scarlett, 1st Baron Abinger, Richard “Conversation” Sharp (see my post on Sharp), the historian John Allen and Robert Smith were those involved. By 1801, what had started as a small clique of friends transformed into a properly constituted club comprising the following members:
James Scarlett, 1st Baron Abinger
Josiah Wedgwood II
Pierre Etienne Louis Dumont
Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (King of Clubs)
Within seven years the club expanded to include such additional illustrious names as
Rev. Peter Elmsley
John Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley
Rev. Sydney Smith
Samuel Boddington (Lord Byron and His Times)
Well known throughout London as an exclusive Whig dining club where erudite conversation on all matters pertaining to books, authors and literature took place, but where the discussion of politics was positively excluded, the King of Clubs knew great success. Tom Campbell described the club as “a gathering-place of brilliant talkers, dedicated to the meetings of the reigning wits of London”.
“The annual subscription was originally £2 2s. It dropped in 1804 to £2, but in 1808 was raised to 3s. From 1810 onwards the subscription was fixed at £3, and each member when dining paid 10s. 6d. extra. In 1802 the club met monthly at the “Crown and Anchor” in the Strand. For many years the dinners were held at the Freemasons’ Tavern, the last meeting there being on July 3, 1819. They met on February 7, 1820, at Grillion’s Hotel, in Albemarle Street, and dined there for the last time on February 3, 1821. The next gathering was at the Clarendon Hotel, on March 6, 1821. The price of the dinner became a guinea for each person, exclusive of wine and wax-lights, the charge for the latter item being invariably 21s. for the evening. About a dozen persons dined at each meeting, and they drank from six to twelve bottles of wine. Champagne never appears in the list of wines. Claret was the popular drink, and on one occasion five bottles were supplied at a charge of £3 2s. 6d., i.e., 12s. 6d. per bottle.” (Lord Byron and His Times)
“When Thomas Campbell returned to London from Altona in April, 1801, he received an invitation from Lord Holland to dine at the “King of Clubs.” “Thither with his lordship,” says the poet in his diary, “I accordingly repaired, and it was an era in my life. There I met in all their glory and feather, Mackintosh, Rogers, the Smiths, Sydney, and others. In the retrospect of a long life, I know no man whose acuteness of intellect gave me a higher idea of human nature than Mackintosh; and, without disparaging his benevolence—for he had an excellent heart—I may say that I never saw a man who so reconciled me to hereditary aristocracy as the benignant Lord Holland.” (Lord Byron and His Times)
As a dining club, an additional charge of 10 shillings and 6 pence was made for dinner, a considerable sum in those days, and princely suppers were held in Harley Street and later at the Crown and Anchor, Arundel Street, in the Strand. The Crown and Anchor was the very inn where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell once enjoyed supping together; and it was especially popular among the Whigs after it hosted a great banquet in honour of Fox’s birthday in 1798, when an enormous crowd of 2000 Reformers toasted The People – the Source of Power! (King of Clubs)
Such was the popularity of the King of Clubs, and so sought after did membership become, that in 1808 a decision was taken to limit membership to a maximum of thirty people who were resident in England. By this time the membership had gained:
Abercromby (Lord Dunfermline)
Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton
Charles Kinnaird, 8th Lord Kinnaird
Lord John Townshend MP
Lord Thomas Denman, 1st Baron Denman (King of Clubs)
From Mary D. Archer and Christopher D. Haley, we find, “A near neighbor to the Shipman property was a fellow Emmanuel student, Thomas Smith, who owned the Manor of Easton Grey in Wiltshire. Tennant was a frequent guest at Easton Grey, and there befriended many of the leading figures of English political and economic life: David Ricardio, Thomas Malthus, Leonard and Francis Horner, Samuel Romilly, Lord Brougham and others who moved among the Whigs at Holland House, the Kensington mansion of Lord and Lady Holland. He soon gained access to their London gatherings as well, and in 1799 he became a member of a dining and conversation club known as the ‘King of Clubs.’ The club members met on the first Saturday of each month at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand and the typical meeting consisted chiefly of literary reminiscences, anecdotes of authors, criticisms of books, etc., made palpable by bottles of sherry, madeira, port, bacillus and claret, as the bill for one dinner indicates. Such close interactions with the leading intellectuals of the day made Tennant a keen student of political economy, and he even contemplated founding a chair of political economy at Cambridge and writing books on the subject.” (The 1702 Chair of Chemistry at Cambridge: Transformation and Change)
Despite such unashamed conviviality there is no evidence that alcohol in any way impeded the flow or the quality of the conversation that took place, and we may imagine that the reverse was probably the case since the atmosphere was always a happy blend of the jovial and the serious. It was expected that members should give time to the preparation of their bon-mots, witticisms and anecdotes so that in due course these could be woven into the discussion as productively and effectively as possible. Clayden recalls how on one occasion Sharp, in fun, chanced upon Boddington’s notes before a meeting, made a mental note of all his stories and brought them into the conversation before Boddington could relate them himself. (King of Clubs)
The preparation that members were expected to undertake before attending meetings of the King of Clubs does not seem to have spoiled either the spontaneity of what occurred or the enjoyment of those who attended. Yet when Francis Horner had his first experience of the club, on 10 April 1802, he gained a very mixed impression, finding the conversation less animated than he anticipated but attributing this to the absence of Sydney Smith:
“This day I dined at the King of Clubs which meets monthly at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand. The company consisted of Mackintosh, Romilly, Whishaw, Abercromby, Sharp, Scarlett, etc. Smith is not yet come to town. The conversation was very pleasing. It consisted chiefly of literary reminiscences, anecdotes of authors, criticisms of books, etc. I had been taught to expect a very different scene – a display of argument, wit and all the flourishes of intellectual gladiatorship, which though less permanently pleasing, is for the time more striking. This expectation was not answered, partly, as I am given to understand, from the absence of Smith, and partly from the presence of Romilly, who evidently received from all an unaffected deference and imposed a certain degree of restraint.” (King of Clubs)
“The last dinner recorded in this book was on June 7, 1823, when those present were Lord Lansdowne, Mr. Whishaw, Mr. Hallam, Lord Dudley, Mr. Blake, Mr. Lamb, Mr. Philips, Mr. R. P. Knight, Mr. J. Allen, Mr. Boddington, and Mr. Smyth as visitor. With that gathering the Club seems to have passed out of existence.
“The reason for its death may perhaps be found in some reflections of Campbell. Many of the members were his warm friends, and as their guest he was present at several of their dinners. But the entertainment gradually palled upon him, and he analysed his feelings in a letter to one of his correspondents.
“‘Much as the art and erudition of these men please an auditor at the first or second visit, the trial of minds becomes at last fatiguing, because it is unnatural and unsatisfactory. Every one of these brilliants goes there to shine, for conversational powers are so much the rage in London that no reputation is higher than his who exhibits them to advantage. Where every one tries to instruct there is, in fact, but little instruction. Wit, paradox, eccentricity, even absurdity if delivered rapidly and facetiously, takes priority in these societies of sound reason and delicate taste. I have watched sometimes the devious tide of conversation guided by accidental associations turning from topic to topic and satisfactory upon none. What has one learnt? has been my general question.The mind, it is true, is electrified and quickened, and the spirits are finely exhilarated; but one grand fault pervades the whole institution—their inquiries are desultory, and all improvement to be reaped must be accidental.’
“If Campbell’s conclusions were correct this combination of wits died from excessive brilliancy. Fortunately for the prolongation of their existence, most London clubs are not at this time composed of such material.” (Lord Byron and His Times)
Wonderful post, Regina! Thanks for the fascinating opportunity to learn more about the ever so exclusive gentlemen’s clubs!
Glad you found it helpful, Joana.